When our Italian friends Alessandro and Rita came to spend their vacation with us, we wanted to regale them with food. We cooked grand dinners, we went out to our favorite restaurants, we drove them to Charleston to feast on shrimp and oysters.
Then, on their last morning in town before a late afternoon flight back to Europe, they conferred quietly in Italian before coming to me with a request.
“John,” Alessandro asked, “Do you think we might take our breakfast at the, uh — What do you call it? — Waffle House?”
Forget the triggerfish crudo and heirloom tomato salad. They wanted their Southern food vacation scattered, smothered and chunked.
It is easy to forget that out-of-town visitors aren’t always looking for the best food, but rather the truest sense of place.
Many of us will face this quandary during the holidays. Our friends and family from New York to Alabama, and from India to Korea, will want to go out and eat somewhere that feels distinctively Atlantan.
Here is one man’s admittedly opinionated idea of where to take your guests:
This is usually my first stop with out-of-town guests. What better way to combine a big food shop with a sightseeing expedition. While weekends can get crazy, the weekdays are prime time to add a lunch break to the outing. It isn’t everywhere you can heap your plate with mashed rutabagas, “Afghanistan rice” (with raisins and spices), butternut squash lasagna, fried chicken and a samosa. There’s also a full salad bar that has everything from sprouted raw beans to curried chicken salad to shredded beets.
My best tip: Look for the roasted turkey thighs stewing into falling-apart shreds in their juices. You can find and pick out the turkey oysters — those delectable knobs of meat at the leg joint that I consider the best morsel on the bird.
3000 East Ponce De Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-377-6400.
Not having grown up in Atlanta, I have no nostalgic attachment to the food, The french fries are greasy, the hot dogs are hot dogs, the fried pies a fun curio, and the famous Frosted Orange drink is what you’d get if you poured melted Creamsicles into a Slurpee machine. Nothing wrong with that, I’d just rather have a Creamsicle.
On the other hand, I love bringing folks here for the architecture. With its vast expanses of tile and terrazzo, its chrome railings and its arcade of dining space high above the parking lot, the Varsity evokes a midcentury vision of a bright future as well as Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom. Plus, there’s that chorus of “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” — a sound as true to this place as the cry of seagulls on the beach.
61 North Ave., Midtown, 404-881-1706.
Sometimes the lunch counters at little markets or drugstores are so good they engulf and take over the retail business. This is the tradition celebrated with schlocky good cheer at Cracker Barrel. But it’s the real deal at Carver’s, where a few dusty canned goods and such crowd about the long picnic tables that fill the small space.
When owner Robert Carver died earlier, this year, we all wondered if this Westside restaurant would survive. Carver’s son, Robbie Carver, has taken his place behind the counter, while Sharon Carter (Robert’s widow and Robbie’s stepmother) still prepares her daily lineup of pot pie, barbecued pork, turkey and fried chicken with a dozen or more vegetables. I’d skip the rubbery-skinned fried chicken for the sweet, comforting pork. Or, better yet, load up on vegetables: great rutabaga, collard greens, squash casserole and other heaps of soft, rich love. You have to save room for Coca-Cola cake — a house specialty.
1118 West Marietta St., Atlanta, 404-794-4410.
I always take guests to Buford Highway or Duluth for one of those Korean meals where you end up with a hundred small dishes and beer bottles scattered across the table. None impresses them more than Honey Pig, the ever-popular spot where guests griddle raw meat and fish at the table over heated iron domes. My guests are always surprised by the stylish decor of this restaurant — the way slabs of unfinished concrete and stacks of cinder blocks figure into a high-gloss design. They also loved cooking the tiles of house-specialty kurobuta pork belly, as well as beef tongue and (if they prefer) seafood or chicken, then wrapping them in lettuce leaves or slick rice papers with dabs of sauce. They always go nuts for the final show, when a waiter combines all the leftovers with rice and and one fast-cooking octopus leg to make amazing fried rice.
3473 Old Norcross Road, Duluth, 770-476-9292.
So where do you take your out-of-towners for that one nice meal out? If my friends are as into edgy food as I am, I like to take them to One Eared Stag, Cakes & Ale or Empire State South. These are all restaurants with highly creative chefs who take chances and bring eclectic styles of cooking and influences into their versions of Southern fare.
Steven Satterfield at Miller Union is a different kind of chef. His cooking is focused and unadorned. He gets the local vernacular and knows the market. Here’s where the soup special is an Army green puree of Swiss chard made with rich chicken stock and no perceptible cream. And it’s brilliant. Chard everywhere else tastes like a waste of good chlorophyll. Here you taste its soul — the nutty sweetness of spinach, the meaty heft of kale, the acid tang of sorrel, all in one. He griddles pastured Georgia chicken until the skin crisps and lays it over slippery mushrooms and a glossy smear of chestnut puree laid like a primer coat on the plate. You cut the chicken, the juices turn the puree to sauce, the wine list offers up a terrific Côtes du Rhône, the service shines, the room glows…and here’s Atlanta at its finest.
999 Brady Ave., Atlanta, 678-733-8550. millerunion.com.
Everyone wants barbecue when they come here, and after you make it clear we’re not in North Carolina or Memphis or any other Southern barbecue capital, you’ve got to choose a restaurant. If you have a favorite little joint close to your house, go there. It’s better than anything back in Philadelphia. If not, then go to Fox Brothers and pig out on fried jalapeño chips, smoked wings and an order of the chili-cheese-smothered tater tots called “The Lopez.” Then it’s time for a barbecue plate.
The front room of Fox Brothers has not been rebuilt since a falling tree took it down earlier this year, but the white canvas wedding tent that currently replaces it only adds to the fun.
1238 DeKalb Ave., Atlanta, 404-577-4030.
I love taking people to the Busy Bee Cafe for fried chicken because everyone wants fried chicken. But lately I have new appreciation for that Midtown stalwart: Mary Mac’s. Some of my praise goes to the logistics. That dedicated parking lot helps, and then the restaurant is so vast you never really have to wait long for a table. The little rituals charm everyone. That cup of delicious potlikker with a cornbread muffin for newcomers. The chits you fill out yourself to turn into the kitchen.
The fried chicken is fine, but I’d probably direct folks to fried pork chops or smothered chicken. I’d also make sure they’d sample my favorite vegetables here — the creamed corn still crisp off the cob and the terrific cheese and vegetable souffle that tastes like the love child of ratatouille and squash casserole.
224 Ponce De Leon Ave., Midtown, 404-876-1800.
I always make sure my people experience late-night cocktails and snacks at this classic pub at least once. If we make for the 10 p.m. burger, great — that’s a notch in the old Atlanta belt. If not, the city’s most appealing small-plates menu has plenty for both meat fanatics and those who are more into local vegetables.
Stay late, drink, have fun. Pick a designated driver. Because after Holemen, you’re going to Waffle House.
2277 Peachtree Road, Buckhead, 404-948-1175.